Black Cemetery Loss Is a National Crisis
Our headstones are gone. The land is flooded or infested. Can Black death and afterlife be saved like Black lives?
In the spring of 2018, I traveled to Sapelo Island to conduct research for my forthcoming book, Wandering in Strange Lands. A former plantation, Sapelo Island is the fourth largest barrier island in Georgia and was once home to a very active Gullah Geechee community, whose population is currently on the decline. Many Gullah Geechee people have moved to the mainland, such as Savannah, or even farther across the country, and the property taxes on Sapelo have risen 500% as White interlopers have made the island a vacation destination. During a driving tour conducted by a native Sapelo Islander, we approached Behavior Cemetery, where former slaves and their descendants were buried.
This particular cemetery was different from those that I’ve seen growing up in New Jersey because it faced the Atlantic Ocean and, most of all, we weren’t allowed to venture into it without permission as we could for other historical sites. Before I could ask the guide why, he explained to the group that it’s because vandalism had taken place. In Gullah Geechee culture, burial is very sacred. Oftentimes, cemeteries face the ocean because there is a belief that the souls of the enslaved and their descendants would travel back to Africa in the afterlife. Their favorite items would be placed near their headstones so they won’t be lonely during the journey. How could anyone be so inconsiderate to defile a burial place? I thought. But in a matter of days, I’d seen more desecration: cemeteries underwater, cemeteries hidden underneath sprawling golf courses, cemeteries inaccessible to those whose relatives are buried there because they are tucked within gated communities called plantations. It was throughout this fieldwork in the Deep South that I realized that this is another kind of violence, and I wanted to know if these disgraceful acts were nationwide.
Even in death, there was a “spatial segregation” to remind the living that the dead could not be united in their final resting places. But even the Black souls who have transitioned do…